JERUSALEM – Israel’s meeting with top diplomats from four Arab countries and the United States, which begins on Sunday, is one of the strongest signs yet that the country is beginning to reap the benefits of the normalization agreements signed two years ago. a profound reshuffle of Middle Eastern powers accelerated by the war in Ukraine.
The agreements have also prompted Egypt, a longtime peace partner, to engage more meaningfully with Israel, as Cairo seeks to relaunch its role as Israel’s bridge to the Arab world. When Israel first announced the summit on Friday, Egypt was not on the list of participating countries: the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain. But it was added on Saturday.
The groundbreaking meeting — the first to involve so many Arab, American and Israeli officials on Israeli soil at once — is evidence of the acceptance of Israel by key Arab leaders, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist. It suggests that the relationship between the United States and its partners in the Middle East is about to enter a new phase.
“This is a way of showing that American friends, American partners, are talking to America collectively rather than individually,” he said. “Maybe that way Washington will listen to us more on important issues.”
Most Arab countries have yet to formalize relations with Israel, and polls suggest that many people in the Arab world do not support normalizing ties with Israel. But for Gulf leaders, the costs of disappointing the Arab street outweigh the benefits of sending a strong message to both their longtime benefactor, the US, and their shared enemy, Iran.
When Israel signed diplomatic deals in 2020 with several Arab countries that had long avoided formal ties, questions remained about how functional, how sustainable and how meaningful those deals would be. Even last month, when Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Bahrain, he acknowledged that relations had yet to evolve “from ceremonies to substance”.
The gathering in the Negev desert town of Sde Boker on Sunday and Monday will almost certainly be dominated by spectacle and symbolism. But it is undoubtedly also the substance Israel was hoping for.
While the US helped Israel negotiate deals with the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain, it is Israel that can now act more publicly as a conduit between Washington and some Arab countries.
The meeting will provide a forum to discuss both disagreements and shared concerns about Ukraine and will give Mr Blinken an opportunity to encourage Washington’s allies in the Middle East to join the US efforts to isolate Russia.
By hosting, Israel will bring Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken together with his Emirati counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at a time of friction between their countries over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The UAE has so far evaded US demands to increase oil production to help US allies find alternatives to Russian gas.
Israel — though praised by Washington for its mediation between Russia and Ukraine — has also avoided imposing sanctions on Russia or condemning it too harshly. And Morocco, dependent on grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine and battling a growing economic crisis, has also resisted US expectations of condemning the invasion.
Israel has been isolated from most of the Arab world for years and is now collaborating with Arab governments that have some common interests in the effects of the war in Ukraine, as well as a shared interest in containing Iran.
Foreign ministers will meet when US-backed efforts to strike a new nuclear deal with Iran reach a climax. The meeting will give attendees an opportunity to express to Mr Blinken their concerns about aspects of the proposed deal that they find too lenient on Iran, and to encourage a Washington distracted to take a more active role in the region.
To be sure, Israel has long been a global player, dominant in the worlds of technology, cybersurveillance, military equipment, as well as a cunning diplomatic operator long before the normalization process was completed in 2020. It has traditionally been seen as a back-channel to Washington, and clandestine relations between Israeli and Gulf officials began several years before they were announced in 2020.
But Israel’s ability to function as a public, high-profile mediator between other countries — rather than primarily maintaining its own bilateral ties or passing silent messages to Washington — feels new.
Not only has Israel arguably become a bridge between some Arab countries and the US, but Mr. Bennett has emerged as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, even flying to Moscow this month to speak directly with Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president.
“Frankly, it’s quite an amazing turnaround,” said Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a US-based research group.
“We are used to thinking that Israel is clearly a regional military power, and I think it is probably correct to say that Israel is also a global cyber power,” he added. “But I think Bennett is doing everything he can to portray Israel as a critical diplomatic power, even in areas where you wouldn’t necessarily think Israel was in the past — like a war in Europe.”
For the Gulf states, “going to Israel makes perfect sense,” said Elham Fakhro, a Bahraini political analyst.
“The view of sending a message about a new security alliance, getting the relationship out with Israel and sending a message to Iran, and in a sense to the US – that is the top priority,” she added. to. “It takes precedence over any kind of domestic matter.”
In any case, Ms Fakhro said: “They have found that there is not much to pay domestically.”
The Egyptian Foreign Minister’s involvement also says how far Israel has come in breaking through its regional isolation. Until 2020, Egypt was one of only two Arab countries, along with Jordan, to have signed peace agreements with Israel for decades. But it has now been relegated to more of a supporting act.
Mr Bennett and several of his ministers have visited the UAE and Bahrain – something once considered unthinkable – and some ministers have also gone to Morocco. Bennett met both Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of the Emirates, and Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in Sharm el-Sisi this week — another meeting that would have been highly unlikely two years ago.
Perhaps more importantly, the Israeli Defense Ministry has also signed memoranda of understanding with their Bahraini and Moroccan counterparts, making it easier for the three countries to trade military equipment and for their militaries to coordinate.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Trade between Israel and the UAE rose to about $1 billion in 2021, about 20 times what it was in 2020, according to estimates by business leaders.
Israel and other countries in the region are also working to formalize a communications system that will allow each partner to alert each other in real time to incoming drones from Iran and its proxies, a senior Israeli defense official said.
“This has a lot of substance – it’s not just symbolism,” Mr Abdulla said. “The content has to do with security coordination, political coordination and other issues that may arise.”
While US attention is diverted elsewhere, Arab leaders have realized that Israel is a long-term partner both economically and in the fight against Iran, said Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli official and an expert on the Gulf at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli research group.
“Israel is here to stay,” he said.
Almost absent from the conversation are the Palestinians, whose fate, it is becoming increasingly clear, is now of less immediate concern to major Arab governments than the threat from Iran and the chance for better trade and military ties with Israel.
The decision to hold the meeting in the Negev, rather than Jerusalem, reflects how nevertheless the status of the city remains a very delicate issue for Arab leaders. Palestinians still hope that the eastern part of Jerusalem will one day become the capital of a sovereign Palestinian state, while Israel says the entire city is its eternal and indivisible capital.
Attending a summit in Jerusalem would be perceived as a tacit blessing to the Israeli narrative, and therefore a bridge too far for any Arab minister.
And ministers are still expected to quietly discuss the possibility of a new wave of violence in Israel and the occupied territories next month. In April there will be a rare overlap of three major religious holidays – Ramadan, Passover and Easter – a convergence expected to heighten tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
But not a single participant in the meeting has publicly spoken about the Palestinians in the run-up to the summit. The whole normalization process remains a huge disappointment for Palestinians, said Ghassan Khatib, a Ramallah-based political analyst and former Palestinian minister.
“By doing this, the Arabs are following delusions, and they will not serve their cause or ours,” said Mr. khatib. “But there’s little we can do.”
Lara Jakes contributed reporting from Warsaw, and Carol Sutherland from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.